Tucked inside centuries’-old fortress walls high above the St. Lawrence River, the capital of La Belle Province provides a delicious dose of Old World charm in North America. Indeed, Quebecers like to say their capital city resembles a visit to France—without the jet lag … or attitude. Split into Upper (Haute-Ville) and Lower (Basse-Ville) towns, the old quarter is filled with ancient churches, outdoor cafés, tree-shaded squares, cobbled lanes, buzzing bistros, more than a dozen museums and scores of viewpoints—all of which are must-sees. But there’s more, much more to this romantic, European-styled city. Here are 23 must-do experiences in Quebec City.
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Embrace Winter at Carnaval
WHERE: Quebec City
In the dead of a Canadian winter, you may be more inclined to hunker down by a crackling fire and sip hot chocolate. But in Quebec City, it’s all about grabbing your red hat and plastic trumpet filled with caribou (a potent mix of brandy vodka, sherry, and port) and heading out for the snowy fairgrounds of the Carnaval de Québec. One of the world’s biggest winter celebrations—and oldest (it dates from 1894)—this festive midwinter fête encompasses scores of activities over more than two weeks that are bound to lift the spirit: dog-sled racing, international ice-carving competitions, sleigh races, canoe races on the ice-clogged St. Lawrence River, a float-filled parade, curling, epic snowball fights and an Ice Princess competition. Guaranteed you’ll forget it’s a zillion degrees below zero.
INSIDER TIP Be sure to pay your respects to Bonhomme, the Carnaval’s hat-and-sash-wearing snowman ambassador. You’ll find his sparkling ice palace across from the Parliament building. You can tour the palace, where you’ll learn a bit about Quebec City’s history and culture, though the real fun comes every evening as a dance party breaks out in the front yard.
Appreciate World-Class Art at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec
The Quebecers are famed for their art—and now they have an ultra-modern addition to their National Museum of Fine Arts that, some say, will do for Quebec City what the Guggenheim has done for Bilbao. It’s gorgeous, with its stacked glazed blocks in various sizes, complete with protruding diagonal cuboid staircase connecting the upper two galleries. But it’s the art that counts most, of course, and the museum’s stunning collection, showcasing the province’s most talented artists from early French colonists to modern-day abstract artists, features more than 35,000 works in total. It is, in essence, the world’s largest collection of Quebecer art.
INSIDER TIPThe main collection is viewable free of charge, but be sure to pay for the special exhibitions. The caliber is more than worth the C$15 admission price.
Deep Dive Into History at the Plains of Abraham
Ironically, battlefields seem to always become some of the planet’s most peaceful places, and the same is true with the Plains of Abraham. Surveying this serene landscape just outside the city walls, filled with runners, picnickers, cyclists, and locals out for a stroll, it’s hard to imagine the fierce battles that unfolded on this very spot in the 18th century between the French and British Empires. But hundreds of soldiers were all here, guns and cannon in tow, determined to resolve a huge matter at stake: Ppossession of the entire North American continent. The final blow came on September 13, 1759, when British troops launched a surprise attack on the French, effectively ending New France’s hold on North America. Today, the lands are part of the 255-acre Battlefields Park.
INSIDER TIPTo learn more about the city’s military history, be sure to also stop by the adjacent star-shaped Citadelle de Québec, North America’s largest British-built fortress and still a functioning military installation. You can take a guided tour and visit its museum, though the one must-do here is the Changing of the Guard, with the regiment decked out in scarlet uniforms and bearskin caps; you’ll find it every summer morning at 10 a.m. on the Citadelle’s parade grounds.
Debating which town invented poutine—that super-rich, messy combo of French fries, gravy and rubbery cheese curds—is a favorite Quebecer pastime. But it’s generally agreed that Quebec City has some of the best eateries anywhere to sample this cardiac-arresting comfort food. Among them, Chez Ashton (with 23 outlets) provides a classic introduction to the dish, while Snack Bar St.-Jean, open till 5 a.m. for those late-night cravings, offers a dozen varieties. Try at your own risk.
INSIDER TIPWhile the classic poutine is always a favorite, there are many, many innovative variations, some bordering on decadent. Keep an eye out for foie-gras-topped poutine, cheesy lobster poutine, deep-fried poutine bites, and even jalapeno-bacon-beer-fries poutine. If your stomach’s game, the possibilities are endless.
Visit the Four-Season Montmorency Falls
Would you believe that a waterfall one-and-a-half times higher than Niagara Falls exists just outside Quebec City? But there it is, Montmorency Falls in all its 275 feet of splashy splendor, just eight miles east of the city. You can ride an aerial cable car to admire the chute from above, stroll boardwalks and staircases with strategically placed viewing platforms, or—if you’re really daring—cross the suspension bridge above the falls. The manor house is a lovely place for a snack while admiring the view.
INSIDER TIPThe falls are breathtaking any time of year, but in winter the freezing spray creates a loaf of white ice at its base, growing as high as 98 feet. Ice climbers love it, though you can simply look on.
Step Into the Golden Age of Travel at Château Frontenac
The city’s emblem and most visited attraction, this fairytale castle standing high above the St. Lawrence River is the world’s most photographed hotel. It’s easy to see why, with its opulent Victorian architecture, historic charm—and the views. Opened in the late 19th century as part of a purpose-built plan of luxurious destinations along the Canadian Pacific Railway, this grande dame recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation and she’s never looked so dazzling. Flowers decorate the gold-and-blue-adorned lobby and the 611 elegant rooms provide modern comfort with their Old World feel. And even if you can’t afford the “grande-dame” price tag, indulge in an afternoon tea at Bistro Le Sam, or sip a make-your-own negroni at 1608. Be sure to say hi to the furry lobby ambassador, Daphnie.
INSIDER TIPThe Terrasse Dufferin in front of the château is a long boardwalk that has been offering supreme river views for more than a century. It’s one of the city’s most romantic spots (wink wink). A toboggan run is set up here in winter.
Shop for Local Art on Rue du Trésor
No, you haven’t turned a wrong corner and stumbled upon artsy Place du Tertre in Montmartre, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that you have. This picturesque pedestrian alleyway filled with artists purveying their art feels every bit like a lost Parisian corner; indeed, locals call this charming ruelle “Little Montmartre.” Established in the 1960s by two fine art students, the open-air gallery now boasts more than 30 artists who showcase everything from oil paintings to etchings to watercolors. Rest assured: You won’t find any velvet Elvises here.
INSIDER TIP In summer, another open-air artisan gallery pops up along a little path adjacent to Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.
Take the Ferry to Lévis
It’s one thing to be inside Quebec City’s historic stone walls, admiring every nook and cranny of its cobbled charm. But it’s something else to view the historic ensemble from afar. Treat yourself to views of a lifetime by taking the quick (and inexpensive) 20-minute trip aboard commuter ferry to the town of Lévis on the other side of the St. Lawrence River. As you slowly churn across the river, look back to see Old Québec rising above, topped by the majestic Château Frontenac. It’s beautiful any time of day (and any time of year), but in late afternoon, as the sun sets behind the historic skyline, the scene takes on an ethereal golden glow.
INSIDER TIP Simultaneous ferries generally leave every half-hour from both sides of the river from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m., and then every hour until 2:20 a.m. As soon as you reach the other side, follow the crowd through the terminal and immediately re-embark onto the ferry. You will, of course, need a round-trip ticket.
Celebrate Summer—and French Heritage—with Les Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France
On a certain long weekend in midsummer, put on your best three-cornered hat and buckle shoes and plunge straight into the 17th century at the Festival of New France. You’ll join thousands of revelers—including explorers, maidens, noblemen, soldiers, merchants, and probably a swindler or two—in singing, dancing, eating, and drinking as you help bring to life the days when the French still occupied the colony. It’s a time of pomp and humor both (not to mention, lots of food), encompassing reenactments, musical entertainment, craft stands, lectures, and more. Vive la France!
INSIDER TIPCostumes can be rented or bought at the festival; or make your own! After all, that’s the way they did it way back when … Visit the festival website for ideas.
Stroll the Charming Ruelles of Quartier Petit-Champlain
This one-time riverside hamlet, snuggled at the base of the cliff beneath Château Frontenac, now thrives as one of the province’s most picturesque destinations (can you say Instagram?). Take the funicular down from the Upper Town (or, if you dare, take the aptly named “Breakneck” stairs) to explore lamp-lit (and car-free!) Rue du Petit-Champlain—North America’s oldest commercial street, more than 400 years old—and surrounding lanes lined with centuries-old townhouses, bistros, unique boutiques and artisan shops. It’s beautiful year-round, but in winter, the quarter becomes simply magical with decorated holiday trees and thousands of fairy lights illuminating the snowy scene.
INSIDER TIPThe lanes can get crowded, especially in summer. Consider visiting before 7 a.m., perhaps for breakfast or coffee.
Go on a Moveable Feast
Poutine isn’t the only culinary game in town. Quebec City has undergone a total revitalization of its foodie scene, with award-winning chefs putting local restos on the gastronomic map. The fact that tons of local farmers and producers provide the freshest of ingredients doesn’t hurt either. If food is your reason for traveling, you’ve come to the right place. Among the epicurean bounty: Café St.-Malo serves up traditional French specialties; Panache, in a rustic 1822 maritime warehouse, specializes in modern, elegant French Canadian cuisine; and Légende is a showcase of seasonal local produce with smart wine pairings. And that’s just for an amuse-bouche.
INSIDER TIPThere’s no better way to get to the heart of Quebec City’s mouth-watering cuisine than to take a foodie tour. Among the many on offer, the Food Tour provides insight into the city’s long history through its culinary traditions, from organic rotisserie to crêpes to chocolate to wine to poutine.
Stay the Night at an Ice Hotel
As the winter night sky fills with stars, leave the icy bar or warming hot tub to retreat to your guest room of a frosty palace, where everything is ice—the walls, the floor, even the bed. This isn’t a clip from the movie Frozen; it’s America’s only ice hotel, created every year (in a different theme) at the edge of Quebec City by thousands of artisans who spend weeks stacking ice blocks, carving ice statues—even making ice glasses for guests at the bar to sip specially crafted cocktails. Some rooms are minimalist, the more elaborate contain beautifully carved glacial accents, including statues and bas-reliefs, even working fireplaces. Luckily, all the bedding is temperature-tested to keep you warm through the night; though you may think twice about getting up should nature call.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re not sure about spending the entire night in below-freezing temperatures, you can opt for a guided tour during the day (which includes an ice cocktail in the ice bar).
Visit the Maison de la Littérature
Québec’s literature tradition is long and varied, and now there’s a place that nurtures and celebrates it. A temple to Quebecer creativity and a true one of a kind, the House of Literature is part writerly incubator, part lecture hall, part meeting place, part exhibition space, and part bistro. On top of all that, the architecture is downright stunning; the bright, airy, modern place occupies a beautifully transformed historic neo-Gothic church. And it’s open to all. Stop by to rub elbows with the local literary crowd, attend lectures and films, meet local authors, or simply sip a coffee over your latest read.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to check the event schedule on the Maison’s website. There’s always something interesting going on.
Explore Quebec City’s Rural Side at Ile d’Orléans
While Quebec City is all about Old World urbanity, nearby Île d’Orléans is a must-see to experience Quebec’s more pastoral side. Seemingly lost somewhere in the 18th or 19th century, this so-called Garden of Quebec is a bucolic wonderland of centuries-old summer cottages, ancient churches, wineries, cider mills, culinary artisans, ancestral farms, and produce stands. You can drive the 47-mile circumference for one of the province’s most scenic drives; even better, bike. Along the way, you’ll discover a treasure-trove of gastronomic gems, including the famous Cassis Monna & Filles, which has made crème de cassis (a delicious blackcurrant liqueur) for five generations.
INSIDER TIPVisit Maison Drouin for a glimpse into 18th-century life on the island. It’s the oldest house here, dating from about 1730.
Get a Bird’s Eye View of the City
From high atop Quebec City’s tallest skyscraper, at the Observatoire de la Capitale, peer down on the toylike city. The 360-view takes in a miniature Château Frontenac, the Grande-Allée, and the Plains of Abraham, with the St. Lawrence snaking past it all. Beyond you can make out the town of Lévis, the St. Lawrence River, and Île d’Orléans—all the way to the Appalachian Foothills. Better yet, around sunset, head to Ciel!, the rotating bistro atop Hôtel Le Concorde. Sitting beside the floor-to-ceiling window, you alternately dine on regional farm-to-table cuisine (be sure to try the ice cider) and take in the ever-changing, wow-worthy views.
INSIDER TIPFrom your elevated perch in winter, as night falls and the city illumes, look for the grain silos on the Outer Harbor glowing with an installation of multi-colored lights; it’s titled “Aurora Borealis,” and you can see why, as the lights rhythmically change color in beautiful abstract designs.
Learn about the Nuns’ Perspective at Le Monastère des Augustines
When three French Augustine nuns stepped foot in Quebec in 1639, they established North America’s first hospital, as well as a school for girls. Their historic monastery, located in the old quarter, has been restored into a unique triumvirate of museum, archival center, and experiential lodging that beautifully blends past and present. At the museum, wander through rooms showcasing their pioneer medical and educational work of the 17th and 18th centuries, complete with examples of their embroidery, medical instruments, and costumes. And you won’t find a more serene hotel than the one here, which also offers yoga and other mindful (secular) activities for anyone in need of relaxation and restoration. P.S. TV, Internet, and computers are not allowed. You’ve been warned.
INSIDER TIPThe refectory restaurant features an über-healthy seasonal menu. For a true Zen experience, take part in the “vitality breakfast,” served in silence.
Stock Up for a Picnic at the Marché du Vieux-Port Québec
Seems like every city worth its gourmet sea salt these days has a farmer’s market. But Quebec City’s Old Port Market remains one of the world’s standouts—not to mention, one of its oldest (400+ years old). At this foodies’ haven, you’ll be devilishly tempted by alleys and alleys overflowing with such mouth-watering local specialties as Paillasson cheese (and blackberry wine) from Île d’Orléans, blueberry honey from Charlevoix, and ice cider. Chocolates, herbal hand creams, maple syrup products … they’re here too, all sold by the producers themselves.
INSIDER TIPOn weekends, look for the stands offering tastings of local wines
Explore Historic Place Royale
As charming as it is, you’ll have to admit it’s a seemingly insignificant square. But cobbled Place Royale in the Lower Town looms large in the Quebecer consciousness. Pourquoi? It’s the precise spot where Samuel de Champlain founded a fur-trading post in the 1620s, heralding the settlement that would become the capital of French America. Historic buildings include Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Quebec City’s oldest stone church, dating back to 1688, and a branch of the Musée de la Civilisation, featuring a 3D movie about Champlain. Clearly, there’s more to this square than a pretty face.
INSIDER TIPThe bust in the center is that of Louis XIV, the king who made the colony a province of France. He had a thing about creating “royal squares” in all the provinces of his kingdom.
Kick Up Your Heels on the Grande Allée
Quebec City may be super historic, but it’s not stodgy. You’ll understand immediately by strolling the bustling tree-shaded Grande-Allée, just beyond the old city walls, especially as evening sets in. For tucked away inside elegant 19th-century buildings once owned by the city’s upper class you’ll find some of the city’s most sought out restaurants (both fine-dining and casual) and nightclubs, as well as patios perfect for people-watching. The quarter near Parliament Hill especially buzzes on weekends with locals and visitors alike.
INSIDER TIP Perhaps one of Quebec City’s best-kept secrets, a fabulous beaux arts restaurant that serves Quebecer specialties (perhaps pea soup, tourtière—traditional meat pie—and/or sugar pie) is open to visitors inside the magnificent Second Empire Parliament building. Lunch is served weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; breakfast and Sunday brunch are sometimes offered as well.
Join the Locals for a Night Out in St.-Roch
For a taste of trendy Québec, head to the neighborhood of St.-Roch, traditionally home to factory and naval workers. Today, this gentrifying quarter and technology hub is where hipster locals and university students shop in chic boutiques, eat in trendy eateries, and poke about private art galleries. The two main streets are Boulevard Charest and Rue St.-Joseph, with Jardins St.-Roch offering good people-watching and, on occasion, street performances and art shows. One standout restaurant, by the way, is the farm-to-table Le Clocher Penché Bistrot with an especially notable brunch—don’t leave without trying the bostock (the real-deal French toast).
INSIDER TIPDon’t forget the microbrew scene popping up here as well, including La Barberie and La Korrigane Brasserie Artisanale. Take a craft beer walking tour with Broue-Tours, with visits to three local microbreweries and nine craft beer tastings.
Take in Gorgeous Views Along the Promenade Samuel-de-Champlain
Every major city has a Central Park, and in Quebec City’s case, it’s the nearly 1.5-mile-long Promenade Samuel-de-Champlain. Indeed, these rolling green hills overlooking the St. Lawrence River are a lovely place to picnic, run, and stroll; you can even snowshoe in winter. You’ll find interpretive paths, observation viewpoints, four themed gardens, a café, and more. And even NYC would envy the stunning views of the St. Lawrence in one direction, the imposing Citadelle in the other.
INSIDER TIPPack your picnic basket at Maison J.A. Moisan, offering a plethora of local cheeses, jams, and breads. On top of it, you can say you’ve shopped at North America’s oldest grocery store, founded in 1871.
Get to Know the City’s French History at the Musée de l’Amérique Francophone
If history had gone another way, North Americans may all be saying bonjour instead of hello. That day never came due to the mother of all battles fought on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, in which the British took control. But the French influence in Québec and beyond remains indisputable. Learn all about it at this interactive, extremely well-curated museum, purported to be Canada’s oldest museum. Founded by the Séminaire de Québec in 1806, its collection includes the 17th- and 18th-century accounts of explorers, scientific objects, stamps, coins, fossils, and fine-art paintings all related to the French diaspora. Among the interesting facts you’ll discover: Detroit is an offspring of Québec, as are Pittsburgh, Buffalo and St. Louis.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to peek into the chapel, an ornate interior that today serves as a museum and concert and banquet hall.
Go on a Day Trip
As much as Quebec City has to offer, don’t ignore the bounty of excursions that await nearby. Camp Mercier is known for hiking and fishing in summer, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter. Le Massif ski resort in Charlevoix, just an hour east, has thrilling skiing and is home to North America’s longest luge track (not to mention, exceptional summer hiking). And the imposing Basilica of Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré is sought out by pilgrims for its healing miracles. Whether you’re artsy, natural, food-centric, or urbane, there’s something for everyone in this remarkably authentic and welcoming corner of the world.
INSIDER TIPTo reach several of Quebec City’s day-trip destinations in the direction of Charlevoix, including Le Massif, hop aboard the Train de Charlevoix (with state-of-the-art technology and gourmet farm-to-table meals, mind you).